Gophers Lose Again, This Time to Illinois
Saturday, November 3, 2007

Karma, the law of retribution, states, in effect, that whatever goes around, comes around.

On Saturday night at the Metrodome, karma took a big bite out of University of Minnesota head football coach Tim Brewster who watched as his Gophers were destroyed by an upstart University of Illinois team by the score of 44 to 17.

The Fighting Illini racked up 655 total yards (448 rushing) on the defenseless Gophers to go with its 27 first downs. Illinois was 8-for-12 in third down situations. Minnesota appeared confused with three minutes left to go in the third quarter when Illini coach Ron Zook sent in No. 87 to his backfield. It was the first time during the course of the game that the Gophers had seen this player, who turned out to be punter Anthony Santella, and at first didn’t know how to react. They thought it was a trick. (Santella eventually got off a 32-yard punt that was fair-caught by Eric Decker at the Minnesota 14-yard line.)

Flash backward to October 2, 1982, the first year Big 10 football was played inside the Metrodome. Minnesota, under coach Joe Salem, was riding high after impressive wins over Purdue, Washington State, and Ohio University. The University of Illinois, led by a young tight end named Tim Brewster, entered the dome and proceeded to dismantle the Gophers by the score of 42 to 24. Minnesota didn’t win another game in 1982, finishing 3-8. The following year, the Gophers fell to 1-10, sending Salem into football oblivion.

Brewster played only two seasons with the Fighting Illini, but became the team’s number eight all-time receiving leader with 116 catches for 1,283 yards. He played on the 1983 Illinois Rose Bowl team, but on October 2, 1982, he was in the visitors’ locker room at the Metrodome celebrating with his mates.

Flash forward to last Saturday night. Once again, the Illini are celebrating a lopsided win over hapless Gophers, but, by a twist of fate, Tim Brewster is not in the visitors’ locker room. No, he is in the home team locker room reciting the Lord’s Prayer with his crestfallen Minnesota players.

Brewster, who led the nation’s tight ends in receiving in 1983, looked forward to a successful and long career in the NFL, but flunked out of tryouts with the New York Giants (1984) and Philadelphia Eagles (1985). He drifted into coaching and became a graduate assistant at Purdue, then tried high school coaching, and eventually became a volunteer assistant at North Carolina for the 1989 season. Then it was on to assistantships with the University of Texas, San Diego Chargers, and Denver Broncos. His first experience as a head coach on the major college level has been a disaster with the University of Minnesota posting only one win over (Miami [Ohio]). The Gophers have little hope of defeating either of its final 2007 opponents, Iowa and Wisconsin.

Illinois totally confused inept Gopher defenders with a no-huddle offense that employed wide splits and a frequently empty backfield. Other opponents, however, have shown that deception isn’t necessary to move the ball against the nation’s worst defense, ranked 199th among the199 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams. At this stage of the season, Minnesota might have a difficult time defending against high school nine-man teams. Throughout the course of the game Minnesota assistant coaches hold up signs to signal players on the field as to which defense they should be in. The defensive alignments go by names such as “jet,” “posse,” “regular,”and “tank.” To reflect what is actually going on out there, each sign should instead read “all fall down.”

Saturday’s game started with Illinois winning the coin toss and everything thereafter. The Illini deferred to the Gophers who chose to receive. Marcus Sherels made a respectable 12-yard return, and it looked as if Minnesota was about to launch a Homecoming drive. But Homecoming turned into Halloween when quarterback Adam Weber dropped back to pass, looking for wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright on the left sideline but Illinois’ Vontae Davis stepped in with the interception. Illinois took over on its own 44-yard line and on the second play, Isiah “Juice” Williams ran an option right and was tackled hard by defensive tackle Garrett Brown. Suddenly the football was loose, and the Gophers recovered, but the play was reviewed by officials and ultimately reversed. Illinois retained possession and scored their first touchdown of the evening on a 47-yard pass from Williams to Jacob Willis. Then and there, those among the 46,604 in attendance knew that, for the Gophers, this was another game that would end in tears.

“It’s a painful process right now,” lamented coach Brewster in his post-game press conference. “but it is one in which we believe one hundred percent that we are going to get where we want to go.”

It was inevitable that Illinois would build a 34-10 halftime lead, scoring on six of its seven possessions and using the baffling no-huddle offense to tally points on four scoring drives in less than two minutes. What was frightening to Gopher fans was the fact that the score was 34-10, and it was only halftime. The week before the score had been Michigan 34, Minnesota 10, but that was the final score. This was only halftime! It appeared that Illinois was fully capable to doubling their score in the second half.

“Obviously the numbers we gave up defensively were not acceptable,” said Brewster, “and we’ve got to find a way to get better. I don’t know how many tackles we missed, but we missed a bunch.”

It was noted that Minnesota’s lone touchdown in the first half came when Weber connected with Decker on a 33-yard pass to set up a 15-yard scoring strike to Wheelwright. With the touchdown, his ninth of the season, Wheelwright is now tied for third in receiving touchdowns in a season and at 26 for his career and is second only to Gopher career TD receptions record holder Ron Johnson’s total of 31. Wheelwright finished the game with a career-high nine receptions for 123 yards.

Illinois eventually grabbed a 44-10 lead, which held until Weber scrambled for a 29-yard touchdown dash with 7:14 left in the game. The touchdown was Weber’s fifth rushing score of the season.

Rashard Mendenhall led the Illinois ground attack with 201 yards on 17 carries. Williams contributed 133 yards. Zook took pity on the Illinois alum Brewster and called off the dogs in the final quarter. Although some in the press box thought this not to be the case when it was announced that, with seven minutes left, Mendenhall had ripped of a 30-yard gain on the Gophers. What wasn’t obvious was that the runner was not Rashard Mendenhall but his brother, third-stringer Walter Mendenhall.

In his post-game press conference, Zook indicated he was proud of his players: “I’m very proud of where this game puts us in terms of our program, in terms of coming into a hostile environment onf the road, a night game where we didn’t know how we would play, and whether we would come out and play the way that we know we’re capable of playing. I think we did that, and it’s a sign that we’re moving in the right direction.”

Minnesota’s next direction is south when the team travels to Iowa Saturday, November17, for the Gophers’ final road game of the season. For many, the trek will be like a death march. Brewster noted that, against Illinois, his boys “played their hearts and their guts out.” He then predicted that the Gophers “will play their butts off” against Iowa. That would seem to leave team members missing significant body parts for the finale at home against Wisconsin.

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